Returning to the Mission
The light dimmed. The scent of soap and clean water was replaced by dry dust and stone. Almost as one, they sat up from the cold floor of the dragon’s treasury, full and clean and once again dressed as they had been when they were first whisked into the leisure-dimension. The lamp still burned brightly beside their discarded lunch.
“Ugh...now I kind of feel like those baths were wasted,” Diya crinkled her nose at the sweat-soaked, dirt-smudged shirt clinging to her body again.
Sarahi pulled a locke of her hair around to her nose. “Not entirely,” she assured the smaller girl, still finding the clean scent of soap and a decided lack of sweat and grime in the auburn strands, “I certainly feel cleaner than I did going in. Although it would be nice if we could have washed our clothes. Erf...I should have taken a nap instead of playing those games, too,” the Sha'khari admitted, rubbing one eye, “I feel exhausted after all that.”
Nayeli, still on her side with her head pillowed on Oro’s shoulder, nodded quietly. “Me, too. For a place intended as leisure, it was remarkably taxing.”
“I don’t want to hear a fusking word about it,” the Rabbit under her head snarled, shoving her off of him and rolling quickly to his feet to shake the drowsiness from his eyes, “I did most of the fusking, and my nose is so full of your smell I can barely stand now.”
Nayeli nodded sympathetically, slowly getting her own feet under her and shaking out the wide skirt of her habit. Looking at the large pile of coins still waiting to be sorted, she sighed. “We can’t afford to put this off for long, but there’s no particular urgency at the moment. If any of you feel up to moving about, help me with the sorting. Those who want a rest, rest, and join us when you awake.”
The afternoon progressed slowly. The kobolds were sent off to find their warren’s food stores and bring back something edible for dinner. Oro seemed torn between the need to sleep off their combined scent and the desire to “walk it off”, putting some space between him and the others. They couldn’t really make much progress with “packing” without his participation, though. So, at Nayeli’s urging, he compromised by laying down in the middle of the coin pile again and taking a nap right there, while Nayeli and Tuli pushed coins onto him for Gorgorond to swallow. Sarahi, despite her own drowsiness, helped the smaller Ferruda with cataloging and moving the larger goods around. At one point, she pulled a shield from one of the piles and rested it against her pack instead of adding it to the sorted piles. “Somehow, I feel like I’m going to need one of these more than any sword or spear,” she explained at their curious looks, though no one questioned her claim to it. Nayeli merely nodded sagely, having already declared they could make such claims, and appreciating the practicality of her choice.
Grik and Gaki returned with several kinds of meat, some wood, and a kettle. They left those with Tuli and ran off to fetch water and...something like bread, though thin and stale and probably not made from flour. The group managed to finish clearing out all the coins, partitioning the gold into large pouches before stuffing them into Oro. “Alright,” Nayeli said softly as Oro pulled the last bag into his belly, “We’ve worked hard today, and it seems the sun has already abandoned us,” she looked up at the large hole in the ceiling that had ceased to provide light. They were working by the light of their lanterns exclusively now. “It’s well passed time for a real rest. Thank you, Tuli,” she sighed gratefully as the Ferruda began divying up the simple stew she’d made with what the kobolds brought.
“You’re welcome!” the busty Lioness answered cheerfully, possibly the only one of them still genuinely energetic after the day they’d had. She dipped out a bowl for each of them, chunky with the chopped meat and vegetables. The only thing that was stretched thin was the strange cracker-bread...which was probably for the best, given the expression each and every one of them made upon trying it. When Tuli offered a bowl to Oro, he just sneered at it, walking away to sit with some space between him and the others. At this point, he was probably tired of feeling tired...and so was twice as annoyed as he might otherwise have been when Tuli followed him, her own bowl of dinner in hand.
“The fusk are you up to?” the Rabbit quirked a suspicious brow as she sat down next to him.
“Ah, well, there’s kind of something I want to talk to you about,” she admitted, “I think it’s good news, after everything you said in the Inn, but...I don’t know. So I don’t know when would be a good time to bring it up. So I’m just going to blurt it out now.”
“Taking your sweet time working up to it for blurting,” Oro scowled, crossing his arms over his chest and trying his best to clench his nostrils shut to ward off the drowsiness again, “Spit it out, then get back over there with the rest before I nod off again.”
Tuli nodded. “I found out which wind favors me the other day, after St. Culbert left,” she told him, “It turns out it’s the South Wind, apparently...and she wants to be your ally.” She paused at that, watching his face carefully to see how he reacted to that. After stating his goal of eating powerful souls to increase Gorgorond, she thought he might like the idea of having a helper with eyes all over the place, to seek them out. But his expression was more skeptical than eager, so she added, “She thinks you’re going to have to choose between keeping on obeying the Order or being swallowed by Gorgorond soon...and after everything that happened today, I guess she was closer to right than I realized...and also that the Order is going to be coming after her, too. So she wants your help, and to help you in return. Apparently she steered me into your path with the idea that I could butter you up, maybe,” Tuli confessed with a slight cringe, “But honestly...I don’t have the heart for that.”
“Or the brains,” the Rabbit snorted contemptuously.
Rather than take offense, the Ferruda just nodded her head, looking a little chagrined. “Yeah, and I’m not sure I’d want to. I mean, be smarter, yes, but I don’t like being fake. So she’ll probably be mad at me after this, but I just wanted to lay it out before I start to feel guilty. Think about it?” she asked hopefully, if not optimistically.
He seemed to, surprisingly...for all of about thirty seconds. Then he snorted again. “You said what you came to say, now clear out,” he grunted, half-heartedly shoving her in the direction of the other spouses eating by the light of the lantern, “Even I can’t think while I’m dead asleep.”
Tuli blinked in surprise, then covered a giggle and nodded her understanding, leaning in to give him a quick kiss on the cheek before retreating with her bowl to where the other wives were gathered around the lamp. They were eating quietly when she sat down among them. Not an uncomfortable quiet. The kind that comes naturally after a long day, when bodies are tired and minds are more-or-less content. And maybe the kind that comes from straining ears to make out voices just within reach of hearing. Nayeli greeted her first. “Feel better?”
“Yes,” the busty Lioness admitted before taking a spoonful of her stew at last, “I hate having secrets, especially if I feel like I’m supposed to do something with them. I know it’s probably the worst approach I could have taken, but I feel better coming clean.”
The priestess nodded, smiling softly behind her veil. “You’re an honest woman. I appreciate that. And while it might not please the South Wind, it was a wise decision,” she noted encouragingly, “He hates a sychophant even more than a liar, and would quickly become suspicious if you tried too hard to flirt with him.”
“Yeah, even I can tell he’s not the flirty type,” Tuli grinned, unable to imagine the sour Rabbit taking any kind of teasing well, much less returning it, “I just hope the Wind isn’t too angry with me for not making more of an effort.”
Nayeli rocked her head thoughtfully. “It’s hard for me to say how she might take it. Aside from the story of her rebellion, there isn’t much information on the South Wind within the teachings of the Order. At best, I could only point out that she favors you, so you shouldn’t worry too much. Besides, just because you’ve been honest up front doesn’t mean you’ve failed her purposes.”
The Lioness arched a dubious brow, though appreciating the encouragement. “Thanks. I’ll try not to give up on it just yet.” They finished dinner quietly from there and bedded down around the lamp in the middle of the treasury.
Something awoke Nayeli in the middle of the night. Or at least there was no color of dawn visible through the hole in the cave’s roof when she came to. But with her back to the dimmed lamp, she saw another light, which she might easily have described as the golden rays of the sun just peeking over the horizon, were they not coming from further down the tunnel leading from the treasury to the audience chamber, the way Oro and Sarahi had come when they arrived.
Getting quietly out of her bedroll, the priestess followed the light, and found Sarahi sitting near the end of the cave that opened into the great pit where the giant worm had nearly eaten her. The dazzling light that reached all the way back to the treasury was shining from between her hands...where she held the Heavenly Sun-Blade, unsheathed.
“Sarahi?” Nayeli called gently, not wishing to startle her but very worried at the sight of that weapon drawn.
The Sha'khari turned toward her, eyes blazing like two small suns and her scarlet hair flowing like tongues of flame. Her countenance was full of an irresistible wrath, and the power to rain ruin down about its object. “Nayeli?” she asked in surprise, and the aura seemed to break at the first syllable of her name, leaving a dull and mortal Sarahi in its wake. She quickly sheathed the blade, looking slightly ashamed at having been caught with it. “Sorry...did it wake you, too?” A single pearl of light radiated from the sheath as Sarahi twisted one of the decorations, providing just enough light for them to see one another and where the floor dropped into the void.
Nayeli took a moment to steady her frightened, pounding heart. “No,” she whispered, “Well...maybe. I woke up and saw the light. What are you doing here...and why did you have it drawn?” Concern was clear in her voice, though she was offering Sarahi the chance to reassure her. The Sha'khari could practically feel the fear radiating from the stoic priestess, despite how she held her ground against it.
“I had a nightmare,” the Sha'khari answered slowly and simply, “At least that’s what I thought it was, until I woke up. You were right, Nayeli: this thing has a will. It was talking to me, in my sleep...and I could still hear it, after I woke up.”
Nayeli nodded, finding none of that particularly hard to believe, nor was that alone the source of her fear. “And what did it say?”
Sarahi cringed. “It was telling me to kill Oro,” she admitted, turning back toward the void and away from Nayeli, “Not just telling me, either...making me feel the want to kill him. It has a will...and it can impose that on its bearer, apparently. So I brought it out here, for a heart-to-heart, where I didn’t think anyone would notice.” Glancing over her shoulder, she added, “The light reached all the way back to the treasury? I didn’t realize it was so bright.”
Nayeli nodded again, now daring to draw closer to the woman who was, so far as she could tell, still her friend and fellow wife. “I asked you not to draw it because its voice will ring loud and true once it is bare,” the priestess explained, “I was very sure it would want to destroy Oro...and not half so sure you could resist it. I am thankful to be wrong, and ask forgiveness for my doubts.”
Sarahi shook her head, welcoming the Lioness closer. “They were well justified, I’m ashamed to say,” she admitted, holding tight to the scabbard on her hip now, “It was loyalty to you that let me retain my own will. And, I think, it also respects your title. You didn’t tell us you are also a paladin.”
The priestess chuckled at that. “It’s an honorary title. By all rights, to speak with The Authority’s own voice, I ought to be in the Valiant Order myself. But I had much to say to Oro in the beginning, and much to ask, and now much to say on his behalf. To sacrifice my worldly voice would be tantamount to sacrificing my mission.”
“I see,” Sarahi sighed, “Your life is complicated to the last detail, isn’t it?”
“Not always,” the priestess shook her head, giving wary looks to the sword on her hip, “So you and the sword had a heart-to-heart. What was decided?”
The Sha'khari also looked down at the blade, uncertainly. “That I am Sarahi. And I will bear this Heavenly Sun-Blade, and Oro with it, to The Matriarch. Everything that comes from it carries so much gravity in my mind that I’m afraid to explicitly state anything else.”
“That first is the important one, I think,” Nayeli pushed her habitual smile onto her face, comfortingly, “And I thank you for the second. At least it should not try to kill him at every turn in the meantime.”
“Oh it wants to, though,” Sarahi sighed, rubbing her head, “Even now I can feel it. And...I think it means to train me,” she added after a moment, “It seems appalled that I hardly know how to thrust a spear properly, much less swing a sword. I’m at least agreeable to that.”
At that, Nayeli chuckled. “I did tell you why I cannot carry it. Thank you, Sarahi...and I am sorry to have put this burden on you. Of us all, I think you are the only one who can bear it without being crippled.” Giving her one more concerned look, Nayeli kissed her cheek comfortingly. “Do be careful to retain yourself. Please.”
Sarahi nodded. “It’s going to take some work...” They made their way carefully back to the treasury to get what sleep they still could, and Nayeli slept with her back touching Sarahi’s in the hope that she would be awakened if the Sha'khari stirred again.
The next day, Oro followed Kylan to the dragon’s bed: a smaller chamber than the main treasury, cozy for a dragon but not so much as to feel cramped, carpeted with gems across the entire floor. He could see the patch the little ones had cleared while filling the one sack they’d brought back. Beneath the sparkling blanket, the rock was grooved and rutted from the acidic runoff, gathering into a pool in the center of the room. “Fine,” the Rabbit sighed, waving the smaller male away, “Go help them finish sorting the trade goods. That will take longer than collecting these rocks,” he grunted, shuffling his feet into the scattered jewels. Wherever he stepped, they disappeared into his bare feet, drawn into Gorgorond’s belly.
“You, uh, want the lamp?” Kylan lifted the light in his hand, making the floor of the cavern sparkle.
“Don’t need it,” the Rabbit grunted, “Not as much as you will, anyway. I can tell where I am in the room,” he twitched one long ear, “So I can cover most of it efficiently. Who fusking cares if I miss one or two in the dark? We’re already bringing back more than most people could spend in a lifetime.”
“What about the acid?” the little Ferruda shook the light in the direction of the pool, “Can you tell where it is before you step in it?”
Oro scowled over his shoulder, like he’d just been insulted, then took two strides toward the center and planted one foot firmly in the pool, splashing some of the acid up the side of his leg. There was a loud, angry hiss, and his pants developed some new holes, but his foot clearly continued to exist as the noxious liquid swirled around it. “Did you forget I ate the fusking thing? Gogorond’s bile is stronger than this. I might come back naked, depending on how deep it is, but I’ll be fine. Now get out.”
Kylan obeyed quickly. That tone brooked no further question or concern on his part. “Whew...he is in a mood,” the little halfbreed explained to Nayeli’s questioning look as he returned sans Rabbit and still bearing the lamp. He gave her a quick review of the conversation, and what Oro was up to unsupervised.
The priestess sighed and nodded her understanding. “Let him do as he will, then. It sounds to me like something new is bothering him, and he’s thinking hard about it...probably your request from last night,” she nodded to Tuli, “I would say to take heart in that...but honestly, I can’t condone him accepting such an alliance, and I don’t know which way he’ll decide in the end.”
“Well it seems to me like he’d jump at the chance to side with anyone opposed to the Order, for mere spite if nothing else,” Sarahi remarked, carrying two bolts of silk over to the pile of vetted items, “Much less someone so powerful. What cause would he have to decline?”
Nayeli nodded at the understandable suspicion. “That is very true, and may well guide his reasoning. But remember that he became what he is through a deep and deadly sense of betrayal. Even in cases where he might be said to need it, Oro does not believe in ‘help’. There are only ‘hinderances’ and the exceedingly rare ‘convenience’ in his view...of which we are all decidedly the former, I’m afraid.” With a sigh, she admitted, “The events of yesterday do tempt me to believe otherwise...and I would dearly love to believe otherwise...but I dare not, yet.”
The Sha'khari cast her a sympathetic look. “You’ve walked a lonely road until now. I suppose it’s no stretch to say he has done the same, though that was by his own will. We...or at least I...am here to change that now. For you, if not for him.”
The priestess smiled gratefully. “Yes. And thank you.”
They continued sorting through the hoard, grouping swords and spears, silks and leathers, books and scrolls. Besides coins and gems, the dragon seemed to have a particular interest in written works, as there was quite the library carefully stored in boxed cases stacked along one wall. Nayeli scanned the titles of each one briefly, more for curiosity than concern for Oro’s safety in swallowing these. Blessed books would be safe enough for him if kept in their box, and would probably need to be opened before they would unleash their blessings in any case.
She frowned as her eyes took in more and more of the titles, though. “He was right to call it a vile creature,” the priestess muttered, “Heresies, dark arts, taboo theses...did I not know better, I would think we had raided a Chaos Cult’s den.”
“...Do we know better?” Diya asked hesitantly, “Don’t the Chaos Cults ultimately worship the Mother of Dragons, T—”
“Do not say that name, if you please,” Nayeli cut her off sternly, but nodded. “Yes, and it’s not uncommon to find them either gathered to a dragon they have made into her effigy or seeking one to woo or enslave. But if that were the case here, there would have been more than kobolds in its following, and they would not have accepted Oro as their new stand-in so readily.” Opening another box of books, she added more gently, “I apologize for my tone. It should come as no surprise that Oro and I have a history with the cults, and even he salivates at the chance to stamp one out. That one pays attention when her name is called...and at this point may well harbor a particular grudge against us. Though I don’t imagine it is so bitter as the one she holds against St. Culbert,” Nayeli chuckled.
“Oh,” Diya whispered, covering her mouth, “Sorry. I’ll be careful about that from now on.”
The priestess smiled behind her veil, and reached out to pat the smaller girl’s head reassuringly. “It’s okay. In this dark place, I just don’t want—!”
They were interrupted, and every heart in the room skipped a beat, as a fierce voice suddenly called out something in the raspy draconic tongue they’d begun to recognize from Grik and Gaki. But it was only Oro, standing at the mouth of the tunnel above them that lead to the dragon’s bed, apparently calling for one of the kobolds. Nayeli sighed in relief, though she had no idea what he wanted with the creature. “It’s starting to get to me,” the Lioness confessed with a sheepish smile, “I need the comfort of daylight and open sky again.”
“You and me both,” Diya agreed, letting go of the priestess’ leg, which she’d instinctively jumped to when Oro startled them.
It was well after lunch before Oro and Grik rejoined them. The rest of the group were already deciding who would be responsible for preparing dinner, in fact. “And what have you two been talking about?” Nayeli asked curiously as the pair approached them at last, “You took longer than expected. We’re nearly done here,” she noted, looking with relief at the relatively small stack of treasures still waiting to be sorted.
“Good,” Oro grunted, making his way over to the sorted piles prepared for him, “Because I’m about sick of this place, and getting hungry again. We’ve been talking about the way out.” Stooping by the pile of swords, the Rabbit began drawing them one after another, inspecting the blades briefly before sliding them home again and shoving each one down his throat like a street-performer, scabbard and all. He had to work to get his cheeks around some of the cross-guards.
Nayeli gave him a curious look. “...Is it far?” she asked politely, cautiously watching him eat the weapons in this unusual fashion, even for him.
“Not if I can help it,” he growled, reaching for the next blade, “It’ll take a couple of days to get down into the valley again, if we go the whole way on the inside, but there’s a relatively short route to daylight from here that opens up high on the mountain.” He paused to swallow that sword as well, then continued, “Grik says there’s a trail from there that we can take back down into Nazeen. We can head back to Coras from there. This one’ll do,” he growled, fully drawing one of the last three swords in the pile and waving it experimentally. Tossing it in the air, he watched it flip end-over-end a couple of times before catching the grip and sliding it home in the scabbard again. “Shorter and heavier,” he grumbled entirely to himself as he belted it around his hip, “Best I’m going to get for now, though. Fusking vampire...”
“You were saying something about the way out,” Nayeli coaxed him back gently, “How long will the shorter route take?”
“Maybe half a day,” he grunted, “And then a long, slow walk down the mountainside that’ll probably balance out the difference between the routes, but we’ll all breathe easier on that road. Did you find anything else interesting here?” the Rabbit asked as he shoved the last two swords into his bare chest like he was attempting suicide. One large mouth opened to take them both in at once, guiding them into the deep, hot-breathed throat behind it, before closing behind the hilts.
Nayeli fanned her nose at the sulfuric stench that lingered behind. “Nothing besides the books,” she assured him, “And I’m reluctant to open many of those, just based on the titles. I imagine the contents are going to churn my stomach.”
“I’ll keep a few out for you, then,” her husband growled, rolling his eyes, “So we can both be miserable together.”
Kylan, tidying up some of the other piles nearby, gave her a surprised look. “You say that like you do intend to read them. Is that allowed in the Order? I thought forbidden knowledge was...well...forbidden.”
The priestess winced slightly, and considered her words carefully before she answered him. “There are certainly ziggurats that teach such, and will harshly punish those they catch with such things. There is a certain amount of sense to that, as well. A poisonous idea unleashed on the general public will kill as many souls as a poisoned well would kill bodies. If the options are to eliminate the material entirely or make it readily available to everyone, I would certainly recommend eliminating it. But that is not, strictly speaking, demanded by the Order, for several reasons.” Giving him a gauging look, she asked, “If I told you there was an entire wing of the holy library dedicated to books such as these, what would you think?”
The little half-breed gave her an equally measured look, somehow getting the idea she was testing him for something. “Well...it’s a good idea to know what your enemies are thinking, I guess?” he shrugged.
Nayeli nodded, walking over to run her finger over several of the spines lined up in small boxes. “That is part of it. St. Culbert certainly makes good use of that wing to find weaknesses in our enemies, or hints about their plans. There is much to be gleaned from those books about the nature and goals of many demons, rebel spirits, and cult leaders. And even the most flagrantly false heresy will often revolve around a grain of truth which might be insightful. Consider: a healer may know how to make a certain plant into a medicine, and an assassin may know how to make the same plant into a poison. If the healer’s use is common knowledge, a charismatic fanatic might convince an entire town to include it in their daily diet, thinking they are receiving the medicine, until practically everyone is dead within a few days,” she sighed, as if remembering a specific instance of that situation, “Only someone else familiar with the poison could have warned them of the danger, much less cured it. All that from the same essential knowledge of one plant. So some things must not be lost, and yet are forbidden, for reasons that have nothing to do with falsity or heresy. Such...as...this,” she declared as she finally found the title she’d been looking for, and plucked it out from between the others in the box to hand to him.
Tilting his head curiously, Kylan accepted it and glanced at the title. “’Runic Primer’,” he read aloud, taking the cover between his fingers before giving Nayeli a second glance for certainty’s sake, “May I open it?”
“I wouldn’t hand you something I thought dangerous to open,” she chuckled with a nod, “Though there are certainly a few of those here. Some books should not be read by anyone not solidly grounded in their own reason and beliefs. But this book and its kind was banned for its utility rather than its philosophy.”
“Why?” Kylan asked, casually flipping through the first few pages of the relatively short book. In the center of each page was a single, large icon, surrounded by text describing how to draw it (stroke order was apparently very important), the range of effects that could be expected, and which pages contained other runes good to pair with it. He didn’t read any of the pages in detail, taking her warnings up to now as a caution, but couldn’t see anything particularly concerning about the bits he skimmed over.
“Because these runes, when drawn correctly, are will-activated and self-sustaining. In other words, they are magic that needs no wizard. Magic even peasants can use. You can imagine how a court wizard would feel about that,” the Lioness chuckled, pulling the book down from his nose briefly to meet his eyes meaningfully, “So if you decide to read that in earnest, make absolutely certain you don’t tell anyone about it, or the entire Golden Circle will be out to burn it and you both.”
It suddenly seemed to Kylan that he was holding a powerfully venomous snake in his hands, and it might bite him if he did not handle it carefully. “You know about stuff like this?” he asked softly.
Oro scoffed from nearby, absorbing bolts of silk and satin one after the other. “She damn near got killed by one last year. Bastard cultist hid one among all the other figures in some ritual circle he was working on. He probably figured whoever the Order sent after him wouldn’t just let that sit, and sure enough the priestess here immediately threw a bucket of water on all the chalk after we killed him. The second it got erased, the magic dispelled. Turned out that was what actually kept up the ceiling of the cave he was working in,” the Rabbit actually chuckled, “Joke was on his cohorts, though. The collapse blocked the only entrance we could find, so those bastards got to starve to death in the halls further back.”
Nayeli nodded somberly, though not so much to Oro’s brief story as Kylan’s question. “Yes, I have perused far more dangerous books than that one. Sometimes unwisely, I admit, and sometimes under the cautious direction of hierophants. Regrettably, Gorgorond remains an elusive topic,” she sighed. Kylan suddenly understood why she had taken the risk, and what sort of knowledge she had been searching for.
Oro went about “packing” the rest of the goods while the group enjoyed a more typical dinner, stuffing them down his throat or directly into his chest. For some of the larger items, Gorgorond had to break his ribs, folding them out like teeth from his chest to expand the throat wide enough to swallow the object whole. Nayeli winced at the first of those, knowing he would act like nothing had happened, but would need her healing when all was done. She had expected it, but did not like that it was necessary.
What she did not expect, as the last of the crates disappeared down his demonic gullet, was for him to drag their packs over to them expectantly. “We’re done here. Time to go.”
“Right now?” Sarahi frowned, looking up at the opening in the ceiling, “It’s near to dark. We won’t be out before nightfall.”
“Like that’s a fusking problem in a cave?” the Rabbit growled, “It’s been a light day for you guys, so we’re going to make it a late one. I won’t drive you to reach the exit all in one push, as we’d be out on the mountain’s face at the witching hour, and you would be exhausted. But we can at least get partway there, and see daylight all the sooner.” He growled something in dragon-speak to the kobolds, who immediately skittered over to shoulder their packs.
Diya did the same, if slightly less enthusiastically. “Light day or not, I know I’m going to get tired soon just due to the length of it. But even so...I agree with him on this,” she admitted to Sarahi, “The closer we are to the exit, the better I’ll sleep when we do lay down.”
“I think we should move, too,” Nayeli added, though her voice sounded more reluctant than eager, “If we are taking a path the kobolds used regularly, then it should not be much less safe than remaining here for the night.”
With a sigh, Sarahi deferred to their wishes. She had no strong argument for staying anyway, except that she would have liked one more night of solid rest before having to navigate the dark passages and possible pitfalls of the caves. But she stoically pulled her pack onto her back, loaded as it was with the bulkiest of their gear, and the group formed the same general line as they had making their way in.
“Let’s save what oil we have left,” she suggested once Oro was well out of sight with Grik and Gaki, motioning for Kylan to put the lamp out, “We’re running low.” In fact, their original supply had run out completely, but they’d managed up to now by using what they found in the hoard. In truth, they probably still had plenty for another four or five days, if they doused it completely when they slept (though that made lighting it again difficult when they woke up), but there was no need to waste it if it could be helped.
Or so was Sarahi’s reasoning when she stepped to the front of the line and drew the Heavenly Sun-Blade, holding it aloft like a torch and filling the cavern with daylight, making it look like the rocky top of some secret, distant mountain. Nayeli covered her mouth with a gasp, but bit her tongue on the plea that jumped to it.
Within a few steps, Sarahi understood why. “No...wait,” she hissed, slowly lowering the sword, “This was a mistake. Keep it lit.” Kylan, fortunately, had not so much as moved since she drew the blade...and did not until she had slid it fully back into the sheath. “Nayeli...I think...I just insulted it,” Sarahi admitted through grit teeth, struggling against some pain inside her head.
The priestess nodded slowly, stepping forward to pat the Sha'khari’s lower back comfortingly. “It is more person than tool. It doesn’t like doing a job it wasn’t made for...and especially not while the proper tool is on hand,” she gestured to the lamp, “If that goes dark, I am sure it will light your path, but let the lamp burn until then. And please, Sarahi, for the sake of my heart...keep it sheathed.”
Sarahi nodded apologetically, holding the sword firm on her hip, and started off into the halls by lamplight. The paths were narrower this time, almost problematically snug for the Sha'khari in certain bends, but smoother and less varied. There were no rooms full of slimes or ropers, no scratching undead to harry them. The native life of subterraria had not had time to move back into these halls, kept clear and patrolled by the kobolds until a few days ago. Compared to the way they had come in, it was downright boring...and that was a great relief to Diya, at least.
In the unchanging light of their lantern, it was impossible to tell how long they had walked. Conversation had died out among them some time ago, leaving only the creak of their packs and patter of their feet echoing around the edges of their thoughts. The hour was catching up with them, if not the work of the day, and even the experienced Nayeli was very near to being in a walking trance when Kylan, at the lead, practically walked nose-first into Oro. “This is far enough,” he declared, standing in the middle of the path with his arms crossed and frowning down at the little Feline.
The hall had widened into what might be called a room. Glancing around, they were surprised to find a pair of ragged, hide-wrapped cots pushed against one wall, along with a bucket of what had once been fresh water. “Kobold watchpost,” Oro grunted at their curious looks, “Nothing but narrow tunnels from here to the exit. We’re close, but not close enough to make the rest of the hike worth it from here. Take a nap.”
“Is it just me, or does the air smell fresher already?” Diya sighed, dropping her pack like a stone and spending a moment stretching her back after she was relieved of it.
“Yeah, but not nearly fresh enough,” Oro sneered, suppressing a yawn before giving them a contemptuous wave, “I’ll be around the bend ahead. Send Grik or Gaki if you need me,” he suggested before trudging off into the dark.
It was...snug. They let Grik and Gaki have a cots, as they were made for shorter bodies than most of the Ferruda, and the kobolds didn’t mind the crude state of the beds. The rest of them curled up in their bedrolls in the middle of the room, with Sarahi’s tail stretched a little into the hall they’d come from, and Nayeli’s hand on one of her paws.